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Albion get bogged down
Notts County 1 Albion 1.
GUS Poyet thought the final game of a memorable campaign for Albion was a good time to pitch Yaser Kasim into the first team.
It should have been but he was reckoning without the shocking state of the playing surface at Meadow Lane, which is shared with Nottingham rugby club.
It cut up badly, even before a ball had been kicked. Perhaps that is just the way County, scrapping for their lives at the wrong end of the table, wanted it.
It was certainly a scrap of a match as Martin Allen’s strugglers secured a point they ultimately did not need to stay up, due to defeats for relegated Dagenham and Redbridge and Walsall.
Albion, of course, are looking much further up and trying to cope with conditions not conducive to their passing game is something they will face on occasions in the Championship next season, for example at rugby-sharing Watford and, possibly, Reading.
In that respect at least a match which otherwise for the champions was only fraught with the risk of injuries and suspension-inducing red cards turned into a useful exercise.
Poyet said: “We were brave on an absolutely disastrous pitch. We are in May and that pitch was unplayable, unless you just want to play kick and run. We want to see football.
“There are many teams sharing grounds with rugby teams and unfortunately it’s not good enough. I know it’s a financial situation but if we want to improve football for the people coming and watching we need to have good pitches.
“Saying that, it’s something we need to address for next year because we haven’t been very good on those pitches. I remember Leyton Orient and a couple more really bad ones. We haven’t learnt enough how to play in those circumstances.”
It was not the ideal surface for Kasim to demonstrate the finer points of his game. He is another footballing midfielder and looked snug all the while Albion were controlling the match.
Once County equalised late in the first half and turned it into a blood and thunder contest, Kasim was marginalised and eventually substituted.
Poyet said: “The pitch didn’t help him. He is a technical player. We are trying to work on the other side of his game, the toughness and his defensive work. I think he has got a great future.
“He was very good on the ball, confident and strong. As soon as the game became more 50-50 it wasn’t good for him or us but opponents are going to try to make it a war against us.
“That’s why we need a little bit more quality, power and strength. We need to be better in the air and hold the ball better, deal with the pitch better, because we are going to another level. That’s what we will keep working on in the summer.”
Ashley Barnes heads for his holidays with an impressive 20 goals under his belt in his first full season at the club.
Few of the previous 19 were better than the curving effort with his right-foot from 20 yards which gave Albion an early lead, after he advanced onto a firm header out of defence by Tommy Elphick.
They were good value for their advantage until Craig Westcarr’s low cross was diverted into the roof of his own net at the near post by Gordon Greer.
An own goal was infinitely preferable for the captain than a third red card of the season, or fourth in a year if you include his dismissal for Swindon in the play-offs. His composure, height, strength and experience will be needed in the Championship.
Partner Elphick’s season ended on a stretcher after he suffered a lower leg injury in innocuous circumstances inside the Albion box.
Both Elphick and referee Simon Hooper were central figures in the game developing a tasty edge to it after County restored parity.
Hooper was to blame. Neal Bishop, the Notts captain, escaped without even a lecture for a dangerous studs-up challenge on Marcos Painter.
The fact that he won the ball and Painter was not hurt is immaterial. It angered Poyet, Mauricio Taricco even more so. Stewards had to step in-between Albion’s assistant and Allen on the touchline as tempers flared.
The fired-up Bishop was not even spoken to again by Hooper when, shortly afterwards, he flicked a retaliatory leg out at Matt Sparrow after he was fouled.
Instead the referee booked Elphick for a strong but fair 50-50 aerial duel with Karl Hawley. Poyet observed: “I don’t think the referee was up to the level of the game,” before ensuring he did not talk himself into trouble.
County pressed for a winner throughout the second half but Albion were solid and well-organised in defence, Lewis Dunk emphasising his potential again as an unflustered replacement for Elphick.
The hosts were the ones who ended at a numerical disadvantage, Sam Sodje clattering into Chris Wood in stoppage time to earn a second yellow.
It was a learning curve occasion for Kasim, both on the pitch for 71 minutes and, like the manager of Iraq, as a spectator for the last 19.
He said: “I’d love to play for my country but first club level has to be the priority. It was an okay debut, good in the first half, but then it was hard to get into in the second half.
“It was a tough game, because they needed a result. If I keep working hard then hopefully I can be in the gaffer’s plans and get more games.
“Going up to the Championship could make that harder but it depends what happens in the summer and the way the team and the squad shapes up.
“If I do well in pre-season then I think I could have a chance. I have enough belief but it’s not just me, it’s other factors as well. I’ll play my part and see how it goes, that’s all I can do.”
For Poyet the sense of relief was palpable. Albion have been marking time since clinching the title at Walsall last month.
“I am sure if we had been playing for points against Colchester and this one we would have won the games,” he said.
“The two home games (Southampton and Huddersfield) were maybe a little bit different but I’m so pleased we’ve finished.”
Not as pleased as he is with where Albion have finished.
Albion (4-3-1-2): Brezovan; Calderon, Greer, Elphick (Dunk 53), Painter; Bridcutt, Sparrow (Noone 71), Kasim (Dicker 71); Bennett; Barnes, Wood. Subs not used: Brezovan, Navarro, Hart, Agdestein.
Goal: Barnes (12).
Red cards: None.
Yellow cards: Elphick (42) foul, Painter (72) unsporting behaviour, Calderon (90) foul.
Notts County (4-4-2): Nelson (Burch 77); Thompson, Sodje, Pearce, Edwards; Westcarr, Bishop (Nicholas 87), Judge, Spicer; Hughes (Demba 81), Hawley. Subs not used: Darby, Burgess, Lee, Harley.
Goal: Greer (36) own goal.
Red card: Sodje (82) foul and (90) foul.
Yellow card: Edwards (45) foul.